Plunging Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives

Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives; Studies Among the Tenements of New York. New York: Dover, 1971.

Riis begins his photojournalist muckraking book admitting that upper-class interest in the poor and tenement driven classes has lately spurred only because “the discomfort and crowding below were so great, and the consequent upheavals so violent, that [ignoring them] was no longer an easy thing to do, and then the upper half fell to inquiring what was the matter” (1). The underclass ruptures towards the middle-class utopian dream, as the

hot-beds for epidemics that carry death to rich and poor alike; the nurses of pauperism and crime that fill our jails and police courts; that throw off scum of forty thousand human wrecks to the island asylums and workhouses year by year; that turned out in the last eight years a round half a million beggars to prey upon our charities…above all they touch the family life with deadly moral contagion. (2)

The theme of moral contagious will become especially vociferous throughout his book, but one can decipher that this scapegoating and unreal representations of the poor are persuasive tools to convince his audience—the white middle-class—that “the greed of capital that wrought the evil must itself undo it, as far as it can now be undone” (2). Indeed, Riis seeks to both increase stereotypes and racializations of “backwardsness” and savagery, while at the same time, placing these racial traits within a historical narrative of capital, greed and liberalism. As he says of the growth of the tenements: “As business increased, and the city grew with rapid strides, the necessities of the poor became the opportunity of the wealthier neighbors” (5).  The safety and the health of the tenants are de-prioritized, and with the appearance of the middle-man, yielded cholera epidemics and the “most densely populated district in all the world…packed at the rate of 290,000 to the square mile” (6). The rents are “twenty-five to thirty per cent higher” than uptown apartments, but the factories and ethnic enclaves are all located within the slums, where the inhabitants “look upon death in a different way from the rest of us—do not take it hard” (41).

Does his ultimate purpose of reforming the tenement housing make-up for the ethnic slurs, superficial racializations and voyeuristic descriptions of the slum-dwellers? “The Italian,” Riis says, “is a born gambler. His soul is in the game from the moment the cards are on the table, and very frequently his knife is in it too before the game is ended” (44). In the stale-beer dives, Riis opines that “Tramps and toughs profess the same doctrine, that the world owes them a living, but from stand-points that tend in different directions. The tough does not become a tramp, save in rare instances, when old and broken down. Even the usually he is otherwise disposed of. The devil has various ways of taking care of his own” (66). Whether these are descriptions merely of Riis or of a populous against the lower class, the moral argument is clear: their moral contagion puts our families in harm’s way. One explanation for these matter-of-fact descriptions may be that Riis is himself an immigrant, but is also a policeman. Stereotypes might make sense in a position of police power, where one must rely on snap-judgments of some kind in order to keep the peace, and himself as an immigrant who has climbed the social ladder may explain his belief in the immorality of beer dwellings and tramps. Yet Riis also masks the poor and especially the immigrant poor as bad in an ideal sense, as those who are naturally undemocratic: “Honors are easy, where two “machines,” entrenched in their strongholds, outbid each other across the Bowery in open rivalry as to who shall commit the most flagrant frauds at the polls” (75).

As Riis descends into the ethnic enclaves, such as Chinatown, his moral urgency against the poor turns into a contagion of race, drugs and backwardsness along with immorality. In Chinatown, Riis is convinced that “There is nothing strong about him [the Chinaman], except his passions when aroused. I am convinced that he adopts Christianity, when he adopts it at all…as he puts on American clothes, with what the politicians would call an ulterior motive” (79). Riis first describes the problem of young girls being taken into Chinatown, made addicted to opium in the dens, and then made again into a “wife”—always in quotes. Riis’ most affecting story is of a girl who claims to be sixteen but is really thirteen who “floated about until she landed in a Chinese laundry” (80). Riis further says of the Chinaman who has addicted her to the pipe: “Her tyrant knows well that she will come, and patiently bides his time. When her struggles in the web have ceased at last, he rules not longer with gloved hand” (80). His prescription for what to do about the China, one unexpected given the tone of his slum-touring, is to “have the door opened wider—for his wife; make it a condition of his coming or staying that he bring his wife with him. Then, at least, he might not be what he now is and remains, a homeless stranger among us” (83). In other words, though Riis sees these faults of the Chinese as particular to “Chinese” people, he certainly does not see them as traits that cannot be surpassed, but as symptoms of the lack of a moral center, and in the cult of domesticity, this could only mean bringing in an “angel of the house.”

Riis’ book is full of other prescriptions, ones that on the face of it, are practical applications of state funding, and become in fact the goals of many progressive candidates. The first it to tackle “the ignorance of the immigrants”: “they must be taught the language of the country they have chosen as their home, as the first and most necessary step. Whatever may follow, that is essential absolutely vital. That done, it may well be that the case in its new aspect will not be nearly so hard to deal with” (106-7). On Natural selection, Riis also seems able to look at human beings—always in groups defined by the pronoun “he”—as caught in a prescient scientific racism:

Natural selection will have more or less to do beyond a doubt in every age with dividing the races…but with the despotism that deliberately assigns to the defenseless Black the lowest level for the purpose of robbing him there that has nothing to do. Of such slavery, different only in degree from the other kind that held him as a chattel, to be sold or bartered at the will of his master, this century, if signs fail not, will see the end of New York. (115)

Indeed, Riis’ capacity to see through much of scientific racism, and more towards the interests of their espousers in marking blacks as racially inferior, is an admirable jewel to find in an otherwise questionable text. And that Riis wrote this in 1880 is perhaps the most unexpected thing. The idea that all the races and ethnicities whose character traits and racializations are set upon them by those holding more power is one that harks back to his claim that capital, which began much of the distress, can also solve it. Thus he takes time to praise philanthropists who begin “trade schools” and begin the practical program of “Philanthropy and five per cent” (209). This Riis calls “the gospel of justice,” which is similar to a movement around Christian economic/socialist thinking that he is credited for helping to bring into amore mainstream idea of justice.

For the women in the tenements, Riis sees hard workers and virtuous women who, when forced into slavery, do such suicidal acts as one women who “threw herself from her attic window, preferring death to dishonor” (183). And yet, as Riis later says, “who is to blame if their feet find the paths of shame that are “always open to them?…let the moralist answer. Let the wise economist apply his rule of supply and demand, and let the answer be heard in this city of a thousand charities where justice goes begging” (189). Indeed, the tenements to Riis have turned the angel of the house into a worker who, unlike most of the males that Riis has spoken of, cannot be blamed for their actions.

Riis’ final suggestions are reminiscent of the progressive movement which credits Riis as one of the founders, where government public service plans and institutions are created to relieve much of the poverty-stricken, less capable classes. The first is the “rapid transit” would solve the problem of people needing to be near the factories they work, and thus let them commute from the cheaper and healthier uptown apartments. Remodeled homes and public schooling are also expected suggestions, and “the State may have to bring down the rents that cause the crowding by assuming the right to regulate them as it regulates the fares on the elevated roads” (224). Yet Riis does not also forget private enterprise, which he says, “must do the lion’s share,” and shows that it is also “a matter of profit” that the tenements be remodeled and made to fit less people.


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